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A New Yorker Notable Recording of 2022!

The four works that feature in Igor Levit’s latest double album span a period of 135 years, from around 1837 to 1973. Four very different genres are represented here. Only one of these works was originally conceived for piano solo, but Igor Levit’s exploration of borderline experiences in our lives  death in Life (2018), spirituality in Encounter (2020) and now, with Tristan, the link between love, death and our need for redemption.

“Night has so many faces. It can signal a place of refuge or the loss of control, it signifies love and death, and it is the place where we feel our deepest, most paranoid fears,” says Levit. “The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony contains a famous outburst of pain in the form of a dissonant chord, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is all about a kind of emotional nuclear meltdown. All of the piece’s essential actions take place at night. In his reminiscences, Hans Werner Henze likewise recalled his work on Tristan as a time of nightmares and of dreamlike hallucinations.”

Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan  described by the composer as a set of “Preludes for piano, tape and orchestra”  is a raptly refined hybrid work comprising passages for solo piano and electronics and is a concerto, a symphony and a piece of music theatre all wrapped into one. Lasting some forty-five minutes, it is at the heart of Igor Levit’s new release. It is also his first orchestral recording to date. Franz Welser-Möst and Levit have performed it at the Salzburg Festival and with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. The present recording of this highly suggestive work was made during the concerts that were given in Leipzig in November 2019 and represents an alternative to the recording that was made under the composer’s own direction and that involved a number of compromises.

Only in Harmonies du soir, the eleventh of Liszt’s twelve Études d’exécution transcendante, is there any sense of reconciliation, a mood established despite the density of the majestic piano textures.


Igor Levit is one of the few pianists around (perhaps the only one) whose provocative thematic program concepts yield equally stimulating and substantial musical results. Rather than delve into philosophical and musical connections between the works presented on “Tristan”, I’ll talk about the music and the performances.

For Disc 1’s curtain raiser Levit removes decades worth of treacly build-up and interpretive kitsch from Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in a brisk and unsentimental performance that illuminates the work’s art song origin. What do we make of Henze’s Tristan, a six-movement work subtitled “Preludes for Piano, Tapes and Orchestra”, nearly a half century after its premiere? Some parts statically and quietly meander, others generate loud fury and brilliant flourishes of concertante-like scoring, such as the second movement’s deatché piano episodes supported by cloudy string chords. The fourth movement alternates between sections of rapid atonal generic “bloop bleep” gestures, stentorian brass pronouncements, long string melodies, and allusions to the Brahms First symphony’s pounding introduction. Levit’s secure and suavely shaped handling of the piano part sets new standards in this work.

Levit plays Zoltan Kocsis’ transcription of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Act 1 Prelude quite deliberately, and is not afraid to blur the pedal to sustain tension. The Prelude’s soft ending assiduously dovetails into Ronald Stevenson’s piano edition of the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth symphony. Clocking in at nearly 28 minutes, he wrings every drop of harmonic intensity from Mahler’s counterpoint. Even without an orchestra, that famous climactic nine-note chord will send you running for cover. In this context, Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir represents pure decompression. Here Levit’s ingenuous pedaling and freshly minted phrasings minimize sentiment and bombast, and manage to make Liszt sound more modern than Henze! Self-recommending.

-- (Jed Distler)

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  • Release Specifications

    • Number of Discs: 2
    • Release Date:
    • Label: Sony Masterworks
    • UPC/Barcode: 194399434826
    • Item Number: 19439943482